Ella Skrocki was just 4 years old when she first toyed around with a surfboard on Lake Michigan. Regardless of weather, she and her parents, Beryl and Frank Skrocki, and younger siblings Reiss and Annabel, often played on the water, paddling kayaks, swimming, even taking the sail rig off an old windsurfer to try surfing near their home in Empire.
Those years on the water left an impression on Ella. Now 25 years old and the manager of Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak (sbsurfandkayak.com), the family business launched by the Skrockis in 2004, she cannot imagine a life away from the water — and a surfboard.
“I had my first actual surfing lessons at age 8,” she recalled. “Now, surfing is my passion. It not only feeds my soul and my thrill-seeking side, but surfing is my meditation.”
A Natural Partnership
In the early 2000s, there were few avid surfers on the Great Lakes, and even fewer in northern Michigan. As for female surfers?
“There were so few of us, all of the girls knew each other,” said Lindsay Simmons, a surf instructor who learned the sport in her teens. Likewise for Leda Olmsted, a yoga and paddleboard instructor and competitive paddleboard athlete, and Beth Price, a photographer. All of the women grew up in the Leelanau area. “It was only natural that we would become friends,” said Simmons.
It also seemed natural that, when in 2018 Olmsted proposed to Skrocki the idea of a water-themed retreat targeted specifically at females, all four women would become involved. Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak had long offered private and group lessons for children and adults, but the friends sensed that women would be drawn to a weekend of female-only instruction and companionship.
Shred Camp has since drawn women from their early-30s to their late-50s from northern Ohio and across Michigan. Participants come prepared for a weekend of physical challenge, camaraderie and relaxation. And oftentimes, they arrive filled with apprehension.
“Surfing can be a scary thing for beginners,” said Olmsted, adding that campers know to expect time on the water every day, rain or shine. “Even paddling can be scary if the water is rough.”
And while most camp participants have been on a surfboard before, their experience is generally limited to a single vacation experience in California or Hawaii. Typically, the women returned home with an interest in watersports, but a feeling that they hadn’t had the time or personal attention necessary to succeed.
As the sun rises on a Friday morning, the year’s Shred campers wake up over cups of coffee and a locally sourced breakfast of fruit, fresh-baked bread, oatmeal, or homemade granola. By 10 o’clock, the group heads out side for meditation or yoga; it’s a time to get focused and limber up their bodies before moving into more active pursuits determined in part by the day’s forecast.
“Whatever the weather, whatever Lake Michigan throws at us, we just work with it at Shred Camp,” said Skrocki. “We keep our schedule flexible.”
If the weather is calm, Skrocki likes to begin the day with stand-up paddleboard work on North Bar Lake in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Balanced on paddleboards, the women enjoy the lake’s sheltered waters surrounded by fir trees and sand dunes, and within view of curious loons, otters and turtles.
“That’s what’s amazing about women. They drop the competition and cheer one another on.”
— LEDA OLMSTED
The hour-long SUP session includes yoga, paddling skills and technique. “I think it’s important for new students not only to learn the basics of paddleboarding, but to learn paddleboard safety and even efficiency,” said Olmsted, who guides the lessons. “If you learn to paddleboard properly, you’ll have an easier time paddling in more difficult situations, when the water is rough.”
Following a locally sourced vegetarian or vegan lunch, campers are given time to relax. For some women, that entails a swim in Lake Michigan. Others choose to hike the Sleeping Bear Dunes, or perhaps to do some journaling, rest in a hammock, or go shopping in Empire.
“Most of these women are mothers,” said Simmons, “and they really enjoy the time to themselves.”
Surfing lessons typically begin in the afternoon. Campers head to Lake Michigan, surfboards under their arms, and spend a few minutes on the sand learning the basics of paddling into the surf, hopping to a squatting position on the board and maintaining their balance as they rise to stand. Skrocki, Olmsted and Simmons all have experience teaching surfing lessons, and their ratio of one instructor for every three students allows personalized attention and coaching.
“All three of us have gotten good at catching the nuances of what a surfer is doing,” said Skrocki. “Sometimes it’s the smallest changes that can make the biggest difference in mastering surfing.”
Expert training notwithstanding, the Shred Camp visitors relish learning in a group of women. Absent are their insecurities of having a less-than-perfect body. Gone are their worries of a swimsuit that doesn’t stay where it belongs and the competitiveness so commonly present in a mixed-gender group. Instead, the women find a sense of camaraderie. As the beginning surfers watch one another’s success, they whoop for their achievements; as they learn to master new skills, they share tips with the others.
“That’s what’s amazing about women,” said Olmsted. “They drop the competition and cheer one another on.”
Yoga or stretching follows to limber up tight and strained muscles, or perhaps time to reflect and relax. Each summer session has proven to be different, with some participants eager to catch a movie or enjoy a bonfire after dinner, and others ready for long conversations over wine or an early night to bed.
The campers’ second day on the water comes more easily than the first. And the emphasis shifts from skills development to self-discovery and reflection. Palpable is the sense of empowerment that comes from mastering what remains a male-dominated sport. The women also begin finding connection with the water itself.
Lake Michigan’s sheer size and power can feel overwhelming at first, but the women learn to embrace the water’s fluidity, its constant change and movement. Metaphors between the women’s experiences in the water and in the rest of their lives abound: instability and adaptation; balance and release; turbulence and calm; falling and rising, again and again.
“We tend to take ourselves too seriously,” said Olmsted. “But there is beauty in just letting go. When was the last time you just splashed and tumbled around in the water? For most of us adults, it’s been a long time.”
Draw of Sleeping Bear Dunes
The Shred Camp experience has been so well-received that the Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak roster fills quickly, often with the previous year’s participants coming back. The camp is offered only once annually and is limited to 15 participants to maximize one-on-one instruction time. Furthermore, in the wake of COVID-19, camp organizers wonder precisely how to plan the retreats going forward.
“We don’t know exactly what Shred Camp will look like,” said Skrocki. “But we will always be committed to getting women out on the water.” Possibilities include offering the retreat more frequently or adding one-day sessions on Lake Michigan.
The four women who lead Shred Camp understand as well as their campers the draw of an annual getaway on northern Lake Michigan. Because, in spite of their childhood connections to the Leelanau Peninsula, not all of the women currently live there. Olmsted calls Encinitas, California, her home these days. Simmons lives in El Salvador.
But the two return to Michigan each summer specifically to join Skrocki and Price at Shred Camp. Surrounded by Lake Michigan, the Sleeping Bear Dunes, rainbow-sherbet sunsets and the camaraderie of like-minded women, the friends wouldn’t miss a season. ≈
Amy Eckert is an award-winning travel writer and author based in Holland.